Washington’s Bells: The Freedom Bell

Perched in front of the soaring, neoclassical Union Station just north of the U.S. Capitol, in a plaza it shares with the colossal fountain and monument to explorer Christopher Columbus, is a 2:1 scale replica of the Liberty Bell: the Freedom Bell. 

Based on the original that sits securely behind glass in Philadelphia, the bell was a Bicentennial gift from The American Legion to the nation’s youth (it is still sometimes referred to as the Children’s Bell). In the early 1970s, someone had the swell idea to invite children from across the country to donate pennies toward the bell’s casting. The collected change would then be melted down and used in the final casting. Though sentimental, the idea never materialized.

Let freedom ring.

Instead, the Verdin Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, who detailed the mold, and the Petit & Fritsen bellfoundry of Aarle-Rixtle, The Netherlands, who cast the final bell, chose to use an alloy of 80 percent (non-penny) copper and 20 percent tin. Representatives of The American Legion, the Dutch government, and the U.S. State Department gathered at the foundry on January 17, 1975, for the casting. After cooling, tuning, and fitting the clapper, the bell was ready for its voyage home to America, first harboring in Baltimore.

The finished bell stands 89 inches tall and wide (almost 7.5 feet) and weighs over two tons (16,830 lbs., to be exact). A surrounding ironwork structure to raise the bell was completed by Fred S. Gichner Iron Works, under the direction of associate architect Jack Patrick and with post and beam support contributed by Allen J. Wright Associates. Though impressive in scale, conspicuously absent from the finished product is the now-iconic crack of the original. This, undoubtedly, helps it ring better. The bell is tuned to the key of “F” for freedom (exactly one octave below the sound of the Liberty Bell). 

A long journey to Washington.

The intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and First Street at Columbus Circle was not the bell’s first home. The Freedom Bell formed part of the national Bicentennial celebrations and as such, boarded the American Freedom Train. Departing from Wilmington, Delaware, on April 1, 1975, and terminating at Miami, Florida, on December 31, 1976, the bell traveled to all 48 contiguous states – sharing train car No. 41 (later reassigned as No. 40) with another national treasure: a lunar rover. It sat in a specially constructed showcase car, visible to the public day and night, over the 21-month journey. During the tour, an estimated 7 million visitors explored the 28-car rolling museum of U.S. history. Tens of millions more paused to watch it pass on its journey across the country.

When the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of American independence were concluded, the bell found its way into National Park Service storage, where it waited silently for much of 1977 and 1978. Lengthy discussions and disagreements ensued over its final placement. The American Legion were adamant the bell be prominently positioned along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Other minds disagreed – and prevailed. Thus, in 1981, the bell was installed at Union Station. Today, most of the passers-by pay little attention to the bell as they hustle to meet their trains, but the few that stop and appreciate the elegant curves of bronze are rewarded with a brief window into history. A plaque rests on the ground in front of the bell that reads:

THE FREEDOM BELL

DEDICATED TO
THE SPIRIT OF THE BICENTENNIAL
ON BEHALF OF
THE CHILDREN OF OUR NATION

GIVEN BY
THE AMERICAN LEGION
AND
AMERICAN LEGION AUXILIARY
1981

As a reproduction of the Liberty Bell, the Freedom Bell bears the same inscription circumscribing it – a quote from the Old Testament of the Bible (Leviticus 25:10) – followed by a dedication, attribution, and date:

PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND
UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF
LEV. XXV X

BY ORDER OF THE ASSEMBLY OF THE PROVINCE OF PENSYLVANIA
FOR THE STATE HOUSE IN PHILADA

PASS AND STOW
PHILADA
MDCCLIII

Note the now-incorrect spelling of Pennsylvania. At the time of the Liberty Bell’s casting, the current spelling of the city was not yet universally adopted. In fact, the original Constitution also prints the name of the state as "Pensylvania." The is followed by “Philida” (an abbreviation for Philadelphia) and “Pass and Stowe” (the last names of the founders who cast the bell, John Pass and John Stow). The Roman numerals MDCCLIII signify the year: 1753 (the year the bell was re-cast after some initial damage).

It's not alone.

Did you know? The Freedom Bell isn't the only Liberty Bell reproduction to call Washington, D.C. home. But we'll have to save that story for another time...